Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Amster-damn it.

Okay, so Amsterdam has now made my list of cities I’m glad to say I’ve visited, but never really need to go back to (btw, New York is the only other place on that list). Shocking to some, I know, but there you have it.

We left Waterloo this morning at 8am and as soon as we got on the autobahn we hit Monday morning commuter traffic. Getting around Brussels was a bit of a nightmare and the traffic congestion was only made worst by the constant rain. We passed around a few big cities and the rain just kept coming. It doesn’t seem to slow the European drivers down any, but it had me crawling along at a mere 100km/hrs, being passed like I was standing still. By the time we got to the border with the Netherlands, however, the weather had cleared up and was nice and sunny. Because I was a tightly-wound ball of stress by that point, Dad took over driving so got the first taste of Amsterdam surface-street driving, and let’s just I say I don’t envy him the experience.

When we got into town the first thing we wanted to do was go see the building where Anne Frank hid during the Second World War. We weren’t the only ones with that idea and the line up was out the museum and around the block. Since it was about 11.30, we decided to pass momentarily and go back later on in the day with the hopes that the crows would have thinned. (A novel plan for the girl who is usually the first person in line to see important tourist spots.)

Instead, we parked the car and headed into the old(er) part of the city to find a canal cruise company so we could see Amsterdam from the water. It was such a good plan. We got onto this boat, much like the one that goes up and down the canal in Ottawa, and had an hour of sight seeing around the town via the water ways – we even went out into the open harbour.

By then, it was 1ish and I decided it was time for lunch. After stopping at a little café for a quick sandwich and soup, we started walking around the older part of Amsterdam. Which is also the Red Light district. Which isn’t fun when you’re with your dad. This was the part of the trip I was dreading and I think it took Dad about 6 blocks to figure out that a) I wasn’t having fun, b) the old haunts he was looking for weren’t where he remembered them, and c) WE WERE IN THE RED LIGHT DISTRICT AND IT’S CREEPY BEING THERE WITH YOUR DAUGHTER. After passing 2 bordellos (and I know they were bordellos because there were scantily clad Asian ladies standing in the window smiling creepily at us) and almost headed down an even creepier-looking alley, Dad finally realized it was time to go and we headed back to the main square in town.

I was able to pick up some clog-themed souvenirs on our way back to the car, and we also check in on the Anne Frank museum and, while the line was considerably shorter, it was still a trifle long, so we decided to check into our hotel and then go back around 6. We showed up at our hotel (which was actually a bed and breakfast, Dad forgot to mention that to me) to find the front door locked and no one answering the buzzer. A sign on the front door directed us to the hotel 3 doors down if no one answered so we headed there and it, too, was mighty creepy. The guy at reception (which, btw, was in the basement), called the guy who owned the BandB and told us that someone would be right over. When someone did finally show, we found out that they had confused our reservation and had us down for 1 room for 2 nights, rather than 2 rooms for 1 night. The guy at the BandB called his boss, who owns another hotel, and he was able to get us rooms there. What we ended up with is 2 rooms, connected by a hallway with a bathroom off it, and both rooms have sinks and vanities in them. My room has 4 twin beds in it and Dad’s has 3. Since it’s the middle of the week, and judging by the size of our rooms, I’d say they aren’t busy tonight. All in all, things could have gone bad pretty fast, but it all worked out.

After settling in for a while, Dad and I took the tram/street car back into downtown Amsterdam to see Anne Frank’s house. Such a good call. By the time we got there, there was no line up and the crowd was quite sparse, so we got to take our time looking around the place. Going through the museum was harder than going through Dachau. It’s been a while since I’ve read the Diary (and I bought myself a copy at the museum), but I remember enough to still be able to put human beings to the spaces. To make it even harder, they have several taped interviews with people who knew the Franks, and with Otto Frank, about Anne, life in hiding, and what the concentration camps were like. It was really heart-breaking listening to Otto Frank recount his impressions of his daughter from before and after reading her diary – the conclusion he came to was that he never really knew her because the girl from the diary was so different, and so much more complex, than the daughter he lived with. That he never got a change to know the real Anne is an even harder realization to face.

Some of the displays the museum has are really striking. It’s by coincidence, for the most part, that a lot of the documents survive (like post cards the family sent out before going into hiding, or the board game that Peter got as a birthday gift, and Margot’s Latin-by-correspondence lessons) and it’s great, as a historian, to know they’ve been preserved. One of the most poignant displays is the newspaper in which Otto Frank posted a request for information regarding the fate of his daughters – he must know by that point that his wife died since he makes no mention of her – he’s got one inch on a full broad-sheet of so many similar requests. The museum also displays the original diaries and short-stories written by Anne. It’s a great treasure-house for documentation, and it’s great that it’s being preserved. The foundation that is in charge has done a great job with protecting the building – it’s been re-modeled extensively to preserve it – and I’m so glad we went.

After taking a few minutes to recover emotionally from it, Dad and I started headed back to the main square for some dinner. What is one to have in Amsterdam for a true taste of Dutch cuisine? A cone of frites, with mayo, of course. Dad, the man whose car’s center console is a chip wagon condiment warehouse, was bound and determined to get a taste of the Dutch equivalent. We found a little street-front shop that was selling ‘em, got ourselves some paper cones, and found a bench to enjoy them. It was so good – think wide-cut fries, perfectly cooked and seasoned, with a liberal serving of mayo (European ketchup tastes like VH1 oriental sauces to me). After that, we jumped back on the trolley car, came back to our hotel, and are turning in early for a fresh start tomorrow to head back to the Rhine Valley in Germany.

Some observations:
The use of bikes here is astounding! There are more people on bicycles (and scooters) than cars. Everyone and their mother seems to be on bikes and they’re more respectful of sharing the road then we see back home. There are special lanes on the roads and sidewalks just for bikes, so you’ve got to look both ways twice to cross the street to avoid being nailed by either a car or a bike. And they aren’t the mountain/speed bikes we mainly see back home – these have the curved handles so you’re sitting up strait, which must be better for the back. I remember when reading Anne Frank’s diary how she wished to get back outside for a bike ride – at the time I just thought it was the wish of a young person, cooped up in a tight space, but I realized today that bike-riding the central to Amsterdam’s culture, so I now understand that she just wanted to belong to/on the outside again.

Canals: ew. The water is a gross greeny-grey-brown shade and is littered with garbage. When we got on our boat cruise today, Dad had right away grabbed a window seat next to an open window for the breeze. He only had to ask twice if I wanted the window seat before I said yes. Then we were passed by another boat and the wake threw some water up and it came pretty close to hitting me. That’s when Dad giggled a little bit and said something about ‘gottcha.’ Thanks Dad. When I complained that it looked like swamp water, he pointed out that it was worse than swamp water – it was salty swamp water. Ew.

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